Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Black Friday Protests and Women's Suffrage

Black Friday (18 November 1910)

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (l)
and Emmeline Pankhurst,
18 November 1910--before
the violence begins
On Friday, 18 November 1910, following the end of parliamentary discussion of the Conciliation Bill, a bill that would have given some women (wealthy, property-owning women--about a million in the United Kingdom) the right to vote, members of the Women's Social and Political Union (the organization with which Emmeline, Christabel, and Sylvia Pankhurst were involved), convened what they called a "Woman's Parliament" and issued a statement:
This meeting of women, gathered together in the Caxton Hall, protests against the policy of shuffling and delay with which the agitation for woman’s enfranchisement has been met by the Government, and calls upon the Government at once to withdraw the veto which they have placed upon the Conciliation Bill for woman’s suffrage, a measure which has been endorsed by the representative of the people in the House of Commons.
A "deputation" of about three hundred women converged to protest at the House of Commons. Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, called in the London police and authorized them to use aggressive force in order to end the protest. The resulting confrontation has been variously reported. 

A 19 November 1910 Times article on the confrontation makes the situation sound almost comical. A few members of the police "had their helmets knocked off," one reported a "kick" on his "ankle," and a couple suffered cuts, all the while "they kept their tempers very well."

And the protestors? According to the same account, a couple of the women tried to elude police, one of whom, "apparently unused to mountaineering" (or maybe getting her dress caught), was "saved by a dangerous fall by two policemen." Other protestors, at least according to the Times, complained about not having chairs on which to rest themselves.

But the reality of the violence of this "Black Friday" seems to have been quite different than the Times report. As historian Katherine Connolly writes, "For six hours women were batoned, beaten, punched, thrown to the ground, kicked on the floor and had their faces rubbed against railings in full view of the House of Commons. There were also widespread reports of police sexually abusing the demonstrators. They repeatedly pinched and twisted their breasts, lifted their skirts, groping and assaulting the women for hours."

The Daily Mirror photo of Ada Wright
She further notes that two women died as a result of the injuries they received that day, and that Emmeline Pankhurst's sister, Mary Clarke, who had been beaten by police, arrested for throwing stones and then imprisoned, died just two days after being released from prison on 25 December. 

Not all the press covered up the violence of the protests--the Daily Mirror published a photo of one of the women protesting, Ada Wright, lying on the ground. She had been knocked down several times by police, according to eyewitness reports. As Nicholas Hidley reports in "The Candid Camera of the Edwardian Tabloids" (History Today):
At this point a bystander stepped forward to remonstrate with the two policemen, and as Ada Wright lay on the ground with this man shielding her from further violence, a number of press photographers, including Victor Console of London News Agency Photos, recorded the whole scene. Console's photograph was quickly printed and submitted to the Daily Mirror, where the art editor immediately recognised its visual potential.
Console's photograph was chosen for the front cover of the next day's Daily Mirror, and the art editor also submitted a print to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police for his comments on the incident. The Commissioner attempted to convince the paper's representative that, since one of the onlookers was smiling, it seemed likely that Ada Wright "had simply sunk to the ground exhausted with struggling against the police," but privately he was more worried by so controversial an image, and later that evening an attempt was made to prevent its publication.
Not only did the Daily Mirror receive an official instruction to suppress the whole edition, but when it was discovered that production was already underway, thanks to the paper's early deadline, a desperate attempt was made to buy up all the copies that had so far been produced. This astonishing manoeuvre failed completely, and the inclusion of Console's photograph in all 750,000 copies of the Daily Mirror that were circulated the next day helped to turn criticism away from the suffragettes and towards the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill.
(The Times eventually included at least one other account of the Black Friday protests. The UK National Archives has posted one letter printed in The Times opposing "official" accounts of the situation, a letter from March 1911 that reveals women suffered "every species of indignity and violence," some of it "of very gross kind," during the police assault, and that some of the women were still suffering the after-effects of the "treatment they then received."*)

To Katherine Connolly's article on Black Friday, click here. You can also listen to a brief interview with Connolly about Pankhurst, from BBC Radio 4's The Women's Hour, here.

A handbill for a protest of the
Black Friday riot,
detailing some of the violence
women experienced at the hands of police

Update, February 2018: In honor of the centenary of some British women at last gaining the right to vote (the 1918 Representation of the People Act, 6 February 1918), the BBC's History Extra podcast has produced two excellent shows: "The Suffragettes" and "The Pankhursts." Enjoy!

*The original National Archives post I’ve quoted here has been removed, so the link now takes you to an archived version of the letter at TroveThe National Archives now offer a longer post on the Black Friday protests and their aftermath, which is available here.

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